Should there be limits on freedom of information?
Washington — The simmering debate over which takes precedence - government secrecy or press access, national security or the public's right to know - will soon return to the congressional front burner.
The intelligence community and law enforcement agencies seem determined to win the victory in the 98th Congress that eluded them last year in the 97th: to institute a major overhaul of the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to sharply restrict public access to government files.
Backers of the proposal almost certainly will be the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, law enforcement groups, and conservatives in general, including President Reagan.
Predictably, opponents will include press groups, such as the American Newspaper Publishers Association; the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press; Sigma Delta Chi, the Society of Professional Journalists; and civil rights organizations, most prominently the American Civil Liberties Union.
Observers say free-access advocates should take little solace from Congress's failure to pull back during 1982 on the landmark 1966 FOIA legislation. The move for changes, led by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah with the blessing of the White House, ran into a snag in the Senate Judiciary Committee late in the session. And by the time the committee reached a compromise and reported out a bill, it was too late for Senate action.
''The skids are definitely greased this year,'' says Tanya Rush of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. The committee is not only actively lobbying against changes in the act, but it also runs an around-the-clock hot line to give free legal advice to journalists. And it widely distributes a do-it-yourself kit to show the news media, authors, scholars, students, teachers , researchers, and others how to use the act.
Proponents of change have argued in the past that the FOIA is used only by a limited number of people, mainly the press; much of the material requested is of little use in enlightening the general public; and the spiraling costs (an estimated $50 million a year) of answering requests is a burden on federal personnel and the public coffers.
Media and civil rights groups, on the other side, respond that major users are not the media, but private corporations and law firms that use the act for commercial reasons; that FOIA costs represent only about 5 percent of the government's public relations budget; and that data retrieved are not trivial, but have in the past led to stories exposing corruption, collusion, public fraud , and the manufacture of unsafe products.
Last year's Hatch bill would have expanded secrecy and withheld law enforcement data relating to organized crime and terrorism. Among others things, it would have restricted the power of federal judges to release national security and defense information if the CIA or other government agencies objected; banned the government from releasing business-related data considered by industry to be confidential; withheld material in conflict with so-called personal privacy rights; and imposed new royalty fees for use of technological information.
The compromise bill - which opponents of change hope this year's Congress will start from - cut back on the law enforcement exemption and did not contain business censorship and broad personal privacy exclusions.
Earlier this year, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D) of Vermont - who actively sought the compromise in the Judiciary Committee last year - said he would move to strengthen the FOIA this session, rather than weaken it. Senator Leahy favors a stronger fee waiver provision (traditionally given working journalists but a subject of some controversy now) and fines for federal agencies that do not comply with statutory time limits for releasing information.
Mark Lynch, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), says it often takes two or three years to get certain types of information out of the CIA and other government agencies because of a vast backlog of requests.
The ACLU and others who would keep the FOIA as is are cautiously supporting new legislation - unrelated to the Hatch bill - introduced recently by Sen. Barry Goldwater (R) of Arizona.
If adopted, it would give only the CIA's so-called operational files a blanket exemption from disclosure. The agency wouldn't even have to respond to requests for such information. These files keep track of the way the covert agency collects data.
On the other hand, political, scientific, and economic information gathered by the CIA in intelligence work would still be accessible through FOIA requests, unless such data were seen to endanger national security.
A CIA spokesman has said this legislation - which will be considered by the Senate Intelligence Committee - is basically acceptable to the agency. And civil rights groups hail it as a breakthrough that could lead to a speed-up of the cumbersome process of getting the CIA to release information.
''It also represents a major shift in the agency's rhetoric,'' says ACLU's Mr. Lynch. But he doesn't see it as weakening the thrust of the Hatch bill.
What are the prospects for a massive FOIA overhaul this year? Some observers say Mr. Reagan's mounting concern about leaks within his administration - which led to an executive order last spring tightening federal employees' handling of classified information - could spill over into renewed and stronger efforts by the administration to limit the act.
Others say preoccupation with the economy and foreign affairs will divert the White House from focusing on this area and result in setting aside the Hatch bill.